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Beard Tangles Rabbi in Military Red Tape

Beard Tangles Rabbi in Military Red Tape

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Rabbi Menachem M. Stern, a father of three, filed suit against the U.S. Army for rescinding his commission offer over his full beard.
Rabbi Menachem M. Stern, a father of three, filed suit against the U.S. Army for rescinding his commission offer over his full beard.

Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis serve Jewish communities from Azerbaijan to Vietnam, and if Menachem M. Stern wins his case against the U.S. Army, they may also soon serve in uniform.

Stern, a 29-year-old rabbi living in Brooklyn, N.Y., was appointed as an Army Reserve first lieutenant and chaplain in September 2009, but the Army, citing an administrative error and his full beard, rescinded the offer the following day.

According to Army grooming policy, beyond “neatly trimmed mustaches,” soldiers must enter service clean-shaven. Since the rescinding of Stern’s appointment, however, three Sikh personnel and one Muslim received individual waivers to keep their beards.

Stern has the backing of the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-Lubavitch organization that assists Jewish military personnel and prisoners, and Sens. Charles E. Schumer, Kristen Gillibrand and Joseph Lieberman, all of whom unsuccessfully sought to persuade top brass that the rabbi should be able to keep his beard. They cited the case of Col. Jacob Goldstein, a bearded Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi and Army Reserve chaplain who has served with distinction in the reserves and National Guard on numerous international combat missions over the past 33 years.

When Stern was ultimately unable to secure the same exemption that Goldstein received years ago, he filed a federal lawsuit in December accusing the Army of violating his Constitutional rights to religious freedom and equal protection under the law.

“I was ready to go anywhere in the world, and this [job] literally spoke to me,” Stern, a trained EMT, said of Aleph’s online advertisement that led him to try to join the Army in the summer of 2008. “I have a great appreciation for public servants.”

According to Rabbi Sanford L. Dresin, a retired Army chaplain who directs military programs for Aleph, admittance into the chaplaincy is a two-prong process. Candidates must first be approved by an ecclesiastical endorsement agency like Aleph, screened by the military and then deemed fit for service. Stern impressed Dresin during the interview process and Aleph quickly endorsed him.

“I think he’s a very thoughtful and meticulous individual and committed to outreach in uniform,” said Dresin.

Stern submitted his application packet to the Army in January 2009 and was accepted for a reserve commission the following June. His application packet included a request for a religious exemption to the no-beard rule.

Dresin noted that the Army grants similar waivers for medical and tactical reasons. Special Forces units now stationed in Afghanistan, he said, wear beards to blend in with the locals.

Yet Army policy dictates that men wearing beards for religious reasons must enter service clean-shaven and then apply for a beard waiver. As Army spokesman George Wright explained: “The Army does allow variance for grooming standards on a case-by-case basis for religious accommodation, once soldiers go on active duty.”

Stern has the support of several U.S. senators and the Aleph Institute.
Stern has the support of several U.S. senators and the Aleph Institute.

That inconsistency outrages Stern.

“It’s mind-boggling,” he said. “Basically, they’re telling me to be a hypocrite.”

Wright added that two Sikhs and a Muslim who were granted waivers applied while on active duty. A third Sikh, he said, was granted a special beard exemption because of his valuable language skills. (The soldier speaks Hindi and Punjabi.)

Dresin said a severe gap in spiritual leadership prevents Jewish soldiers from exercising their free right to religion.

“Currently, there are only nine Army rabbis on active duty throughout the world,” he explained, “and about 37 Jewish chaplains in the entire U.S. armed forces, including the reserves.”

The shortage could be resolved, he added, were the waiver granted to “any fully-qualified rabbi who wears a beard in observance of Jewish law.”

“Many Chabad rabbis would be willing to serve,” stated Dresin. “The military would benefit from the selflessness exhibited by emissaries like the Holtzbergs in Mumbai and other young couples who would go anywhere.”

Waiting in the Wings

Aleph has already received inquiries from several young rabbis who are waiting for the outcome of Stern’s case.

“Lubavitchers are willing to go out of their comfort zone, away from major Jewish communities,” said Stern. “We were brought up this way. This mentality is in the blood.”

Attorney Nathan Lewin, who represented Air Force chaplain Mitchell Geller in his successful 1976 effort to maintain a previously-sanctioned beard, is serving as Stern’s counsel. He believes the Army has a weak case.

“Given its acceptance of Sikhs and Muslims with beards and its policy of allowing beards to be grown after initial entry on service, I see little wiggle-room for the Army,” he said.

Gillibrand recently sent a second appeal to Army Secretary John McHugh.

“Maybe this second letter from her after the lawsuit was brought will be additional encouragement for the Army to settle rather than litigate,” said Lewin, pointing out that a settlement or change in Army policy would be swifter than a trial.

In February, the Army asked the court for additional time to prepare its arguments and received a 60-day extension.

Said Stern: “We’re praying for a favorable outcome.”



Penina Roth is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Post, the Forward, the Jewish Week, the L.A. Jewish Journal, and other publications.
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Discussion (6)
December 2, 2011
Doesn't seem right...
If they're going to give exemptions to some for religious reasons, it hardly seems fair to withhold them from this particular rabbi.

As to gas masks, I believe that the USArmy uses hoods.

If there's a good reason to keep people from having beards, then, by all means, the Army should not allow them. But there really can't be a very good reason to be inconsistent on the topic.
David
Silver Spring, MD/USA
April 3, 2011
A little backwards
The Sikhs were actually still in college when they asked for a waiver. They, like Rabbi Stern, were not allowed to enter active service with a beard. They received a waiver, then came on active duty with a beard - and wearing turbans. The issue of beard versus gas mask can be easily overcome (as it is for soldiers of other nations). I have served with two of the active duty rabbis in the army, and both of them (one conservative and the other orthodox) accepted the rule, citing that it was more important to serve than to fight for individuality. I see their point, but I disagree: as Rabbi Stern says, that would be hypocritical to the faith.

Special Forces soldiers do sometimes wear beards (temporarily), but as conventional leaders rule the battlefield, sometimes even the SF isn't even allowed to follow this typical practice. Remember also that Rabbi Goldstein, although he has deployed, does not serve on active duty, a key difference. All the best for Rabbi Stern.
Joel Klehammer
Tampa, FL
April 2, 2011
previous responses
Anonymous' problem is that he doesn't read. Yes I probably missspoke. I did mean "clean shaven ." Thank you
The first question has to do with whether all 3 of the chaplains were treated identically in identical situations.
The second statement by inference suggests something that I never said. What I said was the constitutional issue is a separate issue which has to be argued independent of the first issue, for the response to one cannot automatically applied to bos issues
the chaplain's experience in the last comment just above is interesting but irrelevant to the issue at hand.
Moss Posner
Fresno, CA/USA
April 1, 2011
Beard in military
I am Jewish and a retired Army Reserve Major. For many years I served in the Army reserve with a conservative Jewish Chaplain, rabbi Herschel Portnoy. He was a tremendous spiritual leader for all members of our unit, not only the Jewish soldiers. He often provided pastoral counseling to our troops during his non-military time. Rabbi Portnoy had a long red beard which did not interfere with his ability to assist our troops. He was activated during Desert Storm and had to cut his beard since it would interfere with his wearing a gas mask. I wish Rabbi Stern my best wishes!
Paul R. Plotnick
Cortlandt Manor, NY
jewishsuffern.com
April 1, 2011
I think you meant to say "we don't know if these other chaplains...agreed to go in clean-shaven as required by the regulation" (not "unshaven," which is actually how they entered service). Differently than which others? The two earlier bearded chaplains or the Sikhs and the Muslim? "Whether it is appropriate to challenge the military's regulations" -- what exactly are you saying here? When someone is willing to risk his life to serve his country, do you expect him to sacrifice his constitutionally-guaranteed rights to freedom of religion and equal protection?
Anonymous
Brooklyn, NY
March 31, 2011
too little information is available
We don't know if these other chaplains who were granted exemptions agreed to go in first unshaven as required by the regulation.
Moreover there are 2 separate issues here: One has to do with whether or not the rav is being treated differently than the others. The second issue has to do with whether it is appropriate to challenge the military's regulations independent of the case at hand. the issues are different in each case
moss david Posner md
Fresno, CA/USA
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